Atomic Habits by James Clear

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Atomic Habits by James Clear

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A thoroughly entertaining read that takes you through the science of how and why habits are formed, whilst giving you ideas on how to use this information to your benefit. Told with a very light and humourous touch and supported throughout by stories of those who (without necessarily knowing it) have applied the principles advocated. Too early to say whether I can use this to my own advantage, but the theories sound perfectly sound.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2018
Publisher: Random House Business
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1847941831

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I've said this before but there are some books that you seek out, some books that you stumble across and some books that drop into your life because you really MUST read them, like, right now! Atomic Habits is in the last category.

My whole life is in transition. Some aspects are purely voluntary changes; other aspects were bolts from the black. Some things I'm handling with relative composure (if not exact ease) and others are a really hard struggle. It was a conversation about the latter that provoked the response I think I might have the answer: read this!

One thing I have learned over the last nine to ten months is that the voluntary or otherwise nature of change that we have to deal with is irrelevant when it comes to how well or poorly we manage to do so. Surprisingly, some of the things we choose to do are actually the hardest. Perhaps that is because with the other things our only options are 'sort it' or 'stagnate'…and the latter really isn't appealing, so we look to ways to sort it.

Hidden in there is one of the principles that underlies Clear's approach to habit-forming and habit-breaking. The 2nd law in fact. This is rendered in the book as 'Make it attractive' in terms of habit-forming, or conversely for habit breaking make it unattractive. Stagnation. Yep, definitely all of the images that the word produces are not those I want to be associated with.

The problem with the things we choose is the very fact that we have that choice. Clear's approach to building good habits and breaking bad ones is focussed entirely around how we make choices.

But let's backtrack: why Atomic Habits in the title? Clear's explanation is that it is to encapsulate two fundamental things about our habits. Firstly, they are minute in scale, invisible to the naked eye, we often don't even know they're habits. Secondly, their power is immense. Splitting the atom produces massive consequences; breaking an atomic habit (the theory goes) can have a similar impact on our lives. As with all things atom-splitting, you do however need to be in precise control.

Reviewing a self-help book is always a difficult thing to do, because the requirement is that you read the book and then say what you think of it. I can do that. I have read it and am in the process of saying what I think of it, but there is a sense in which what I think of it right this minute is pretty meaningless. The point of the book is not to make James Clear a significant amount of money (well maybe that too) or give his readers a few hours of food for thought (though definitely that too). The point of the book is to help us actually do the thing: to build better habits and break rubbish ones.

I cannot tell you at this point whether it will or will not help me do either. If anyone remembers to ask me in a year's time I'll let you know. For now, all I can talk about is my initial reactions to the words on the page.

And they all make absolutely perfect sense!

Importantly with any book of this type: it has to be an engaging read. If you struggle to get to the end of the book, you're not going to trust the author, you're certainly not going to get beyond reading it and into using it.

On that first test it passes with flying colours. I read it in two sittings.

I have two other tests for how much I like a book which I apply to fiction and non-fiction alike. The first is 'how many corners did I turn down'? (or post-its stuck in if it's not my book! I only mutilate my own copies). The more the better – these are passage I want to read again, or things I want to quote, or stuff I don't understand and need to look up, or curiosities that prompt me to want to look up other things. The second marker, is what do I do when I finish it? The best books make me simply want to turn it over and read it all over again. (Yes, even fiction – but definitely with non-fiction.). Check! In this case, I don't just want to read it again, I want to use it, put it to the test. See if these strategies will work for the things I'm struggling with.

Clear doesn't claim to have any astoundingly new insights to habits and how they work, he is simply distilling the existing knowledge into a practical and workable format. As he says (and many others have said before him) habit proceed through four stages in the same order: cue, craving, response and reward. He then relates each of these stages to a law of behaviour change. In terms of creating & embedding good habits this looks like this:

· The 1st Law (Cue) – Make it obvious
· The 2nd Law (Craving) – Make it attractive
· The 3rd Law (Response) – Make it easy
· The 4th Law (Reward) – Make it satisfying

You simply invert the rules if you want to break bad habits.

For each of them the book then gives the science behind why they work supported by anecdotes that show their application in practice. Although Clear makes the point early on that the approach can be applied to any area of life, most of the stories come from Sport and Business. That's (a) not surprising because these are the areas where unexpected success gets most air time and (b) helpful because they are examples that most of us can relate to at least on a more modest scale. I'm pleased to see the British cycling team get a shout-out on the approach taken by Dave Brailsford that transformed the success rate, by taking a holistic approach to what will improve our performance by 1%. It reminded me of stories I'd come across elsewhere about the transformation of British rowing where the only question asked of any proposal was: will it make the boat go faster.

What I love most about this book is that it supports a view that I have long held which is this: targets don't help. They can be counter-productive, but definitely they do not help. What helps is systems, processes, actions, habits. Will-power might get you through the first few days, but what will keep you going is systems, processes, actions, habits.

I've long been a hater of targets. I remember sitting in a team meeting and telling my team: right, you know what the targets are. I now suggest that you forget about them and get on with the job. I felt my Director flinch even as the rest of the team smiled. We met every target that year and I got my maximum bonus. I was also told never to say such a thing ever again. I am therefore delighted to discover that what I've always instinctively known to be true actually has a name: Goodhart's Law. Apparently this states that When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Well said sir!

Clear also tells us that will-power will not get us very far and that even motivation is limited in its usefulness. As humans we are hard-wired to do two things: seek instant gratification over delayed gratification and take the path of least resistance. He explains why this makes sense and then goes one to show how we use that knowledge through designing our environment to support the habits we want to build and undermine those we want to break, how we can create new cues for ourselves to make desired habits automatic, how we can create arbitrary systems in our own lives that make it easier to do it right than to do it wrong (put the fruit bowl on the counter and hide the cookies away). For every 'how to build' a good habit, he provides an example of the inversion to break a bad one.

The other thing that is quite powerful is the maths. We forget that improvements (and failures) are compounded. A 1% improvement every day gets you to 37x better by the end of the year.

As a book, it is a really entertaining read, makes a lot of sense, doesn't pretend any of this is easy but sets out tools and website links to templates to encourage you to test it out. As a book, I loved it.

Come back in a year and ask me whether it actually helped. For other insights into how our non-conscious brain works the Bookbag recommends: The Impulse Factor: Why Some Of Us Play It Safe and Others Risk It All by Nick Tasler and Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer. You might take something away from Change One Thing by Sue Hadfield, but please read it critically as there are problems with the use of statistics. We were quietly impressed by The small BIG: small changes that spark big influence by Steve J Martin, Noah J Goldstein and Robert B Cialdini. You might find this of interest.

And do check out the video link, some additional insights in there.

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